Spokane residents will have the option of banding together to slow development of historic homes and buildings under a measure up for a vote Monday by the City Council.
City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear has been working for nearly a year on the new law, an effort launched after concerns about the destruction of two historic houses in the Browne’s Addition neighborhood to make way for an apartment building in the fall of 2016.
“Why we started this whole process is to give neighborhoods the ability to create an historic overlay district so that they would be better protected,” Kinnear said. “Browne’s Addition has national standing, but offers almost no protection (from development).”
Kinnear said she’s tried to balance the desires of preservation advocates and the property rights of builders. The result is legislation that gives more oversight authority of proposed plans to a board of appointed officials reviewing construction for its affect on the historical character of neighborhoods. But that protection would only kick in if a majority of property owners within a new district opted for the designation.
“The art of creating an ordinance like this is, to keep the essence and the intention of what we’re trying to do, yet still make sure that all voices are heard,” Kinnear said.
Districts could be as small as two adjoining properties, or as large as all of Browne’s Addition, Spokane’s first neighborhood, dotted with early 20th century mansions on downtown’s western edge, said Megan Duvall, historic preservation officer for the city and Spokane County.
The city’s existing preservation ordinance only required that a property owner looking to demolish or renovate a recognized historic building would replace it with some other structure, said Duvall, a consequence of developers razing several downtown buildings in the mid-2000s that became surface parking lots. The new law will allow neighbors to weigh in on design standards and officials to determine whether the demolition of a historic property should be allowed, including consideration of the financial hardship for maintaining an older building.
“As staff, it’s going to be a much bigger lift. A lot of it is going to be administrative,” said Duvall, who’s adding one more staff person this year to her one-woman team overseeing development of historic properties throughout the county. “At the end of the day, it’s worth it.”
The group Spokane Preservation Advocates has been working with Kinnear on the ordinance. Barbara Clapp, head of the group’s advocacy arm, said the organization is pleased neighbors will be able to band together to form local districts, though it doesn’t have the same teeth as other similar laws passed in other cities.
“We’re very happy about the chance to form historic districts. Hopefully this will be a workable method,” Clapp said.
Both the decision to form a historic district, and any determination about a development project on a historic property, can be appealed to the city’s hearing examiner. Also, a developer can demonstrate a financial hardship for maintaining a historic building and make the case to a review panel that must include a commercial real estate agent, someone from the financial services industry and a developer.
Maintaining such an appeals process is important to protecting the rights of property owners, said Arthur Whitten, government affairs director for the Spokane Home Builders Association, a group that represents the interests of developers in town.
“The concern that I had, along with other stakeholders, was removing the private sector’s ability to weigh in on those decisions,” Whitten said. “I think it’s a good provision that was left in there.”
The Home Builders support a revision suggested by the city’s Planning Commission that would require a 60 percent supermajority of property owners within a proposed district to agree to its creation. The Preservation Advocates want that portion of the law untouched, saying a simple majority is adequate to demonstrate the desire of the neighborhood.
The change could be brought up as part of the discussion before the City Council on Monday night.
The law also includes several new tax incentives intended to persuade developers to renovate, rather than tear down, existing historic properties. These include funds available for sidewalk improvements, grants for approved facade work and making historic properties eligible for assistance from the city establishing new water and sewer service lines to older buildings.
Downtown demolition is also addressed in the ordinance. An exemption allowed a downtown developer to demolish an existing historic building for surface parking if that lot would serve an adjacent historic property that was undergoing rehabilitation. Kinnear’s ordinance does away with that exemption, requiring a demolished downtown building to be replaced with a structure, if it’s approved by the same commission that will review all historic projects.
Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said there are some elements of the ordinance that worry downtown property owners, but applauded Kinnear for “bending over backwards” to involve them in the process of drafting the ordinance.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to have to take a few lumps in this compromise bill,” Richard said.
Kinnear said the fact that all parties may have some quibbles with the final law shows that it’s a good compromise for the community.
“Is everybody going to be completely, 100 percent happy with this? Probably not,” she said.
The full City Council will consider the ordinance and take public testimony Monday at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.